First Drive

FIRST DRIVE: 2014 Mazda3

Third-gen Mazda3 makes solid first impression in both sedan and hatchback forms

2014 Mazda3 Sedan
COUNTERPOINT:

By Gerry Malloy

Of the two versions I drove – a 2.0-litre sedan with manual transmission and a 2.4-litre hatchback with automatic – I appreciated the amenities of the more upscale hatch, including its nav system and the ability to select sport mode.

But I preferred the feel of the 2.0-litre manual. Granted, the engine response wasn't as strong as that of the 2.4, but it seemed quite adequate for most conditions, given the ability to select a suitable gear.

And the gearbox itself was sheer delight – precise and buttery smooth to shift with just finger-tip effort.

Overall, the 2.0-litre/manual transmission/sedan package, with its smaller wheels and tires, just felt a touch more precise to my hands. But either one sets a good benchmark for the competition in terms of driving pleasure.

VANCOUVER – When a product is successful as the Mazda3, it is critical that you get it right when it’s time to make changes.

The first two generations of Mazda’s popular compact have been award winners around the globe – 136 honours, in fact, since the model was launched in 2003. That heritage hasn’t been lost on those charged with creating Gen 3.

"We knew we needed to get it right, we knew the expectations of our customers, but we’ve been down this road before," said Ken Saward, design chief for Mazda’s North American operations.

Saward said Mazda had faced the same types of challenges when it redesigned the MX-5 roadster. The world had fallen in love with the sporty Miata and it was critical that romance not be messed up by a new iteration.

Similarly, consumers embraced the Mazda3 sedan and hatchback "and we didn’t want to disappoint them with this new Mazda3."

Mazda ups its game

I doubt that that will happen. Mazda has upped its game in the hugely competitive compact segment with its 2014 Mazda3.

2014 Mazda3 Sedan.jpgFor starters, it has been wrapped in a stylish body that should immediately resonate with buyers – both long-standing customers and new clients.

The company’s signature Kodo design theme – one that creates a sense of motion even when the vehicle is stationary – has earned rave reviews for the CX-5 sport ute and, more recently, the midsize 2014 Mazda6 sedan. Now that theme has been applied to the compact member of the family and the results are stunning.

Instead of the shapeless forms that typify some compact models, this car has sculpted lines flowing from stem to stern.

2014 Mazda3 - front 3/4 view low.JPGThe "smiley face" front end has been replaced by a sleek design that incorporates the new signature Mazda grille, positioned low in the nose with chrome wings flowing up to the new headlight assemblies that project a cat-like look. Instead of a string of LED lights that are becoming so popular on recently introduced vehicles, Mazda has used an LED light source to create an aura around the headlight lens.

In the rear, the hatchback version has been significantly rounded, while the sedan also gets a more stylish shape. Both versions get LED taillights that complement the unique shape of the headlamps.

2014 Mazda3 - rear 3/4 view.JPGThe wheels have been pushed to the four corners of the car and the wheelbase has been stretched 60 mm. The windshield has been raked back dramatically and the roof has been lowered 15 mm, creating an illusion that the car is longer than its actual 4,580 mm length, which is actually 15 mm shorter than the current sedan. (The hatchback is also shorter, dropping from 4,505 mm to 4,460.)

The width has been increased 40 mm as well, helping to give the Mazda3 an aggressive stance. Larger wheels (16-inch standard, 18-inch on the GT models) fill the wheel openings, with distinctive flared fenders adding strength to the exterior styling.

New look inside

The roomy interior, too, has a new look, with a very clean, uncluttered instrument panel – except for the seven inch display screen that sits upright in its centre. It looks like someone realized at the last moment they’d neglected to provide a link to all the connectivity and audio features offered with this car, so they stuck this screen on the IP.

2014 Mazda3 - steering wheel and instrument panel.JPGIt’s there whether you order factory navigation or not, but seemed totally out of place in the model I drove that hadn’t been equipped with nav. In fact, pushing the nav button on the console activated a message that suggested I could get a dealer-installed nav system. I’m not sure I would want to look at that ad for the balance of my life with the car.

I was told the base model gets a basic audio system and the screen is deleted, but it’s tacked on to the rest of the lineup. A more integrated design would have worked better with the instrument panel’s otherwise clean flowing layout.

In keeping with its goal to help one remain focused behind the wheel, all the gauges and readouts relevant to the car’s operation are clustered in a tidy grouping directly in front of the driver. A large three-dimensional round gauge in the centre is flanked by a pair of displays.

Instrument anomaly

There is, however, an anomaly. On the model I drove with a manual transmission, the cluster layout had an analog speedometer on the centre circle, with a digital tachometer in the left pod.

2014 Mazda3 - head-up display.JPGThe upscale model with the automatic, however, had a large analog tach, front and centre, with the speedo readout displayed in a smaller window to the right. I would have thought the driver of a manually-equipped car would appreciate being able to see the engine revs more so than the person driving an automatic.

I would suggest the majority of automatic buyers would prefer a readily viewable speedometer in that centre gauge spot.

It’s important to note, however, that in higher end models the digital speed readout is also displayed on a clear plastic panel that pops up on the instrument panel in front of the driver. It’s a new twist on heads-up displays and I found it worked very well – I actually never bothered looking at the speed readout in the instrument cluster.

Roomy and comfortable

These personal preferences aside, the cabin of the Mazda3 is a roomy, comfortable place to spend time on the road. The seats are comfortable and supportive, with more than adequate headroom and legroom, especially when one considers this is a compact car.

2014 Mazda3 - steering wheel.JPGRear legroom has increased from 879 to 909 mm in both models, although the lower roofline has reduced headroom 11 mm in the hatch. (The sedan’s rear headroom is unchanged.) I did find it required a bit of neck-bending to get my six-foot-one frame into the back seat, but once there, things were comfy.

The interior’s fit and finish is excellent and the quality of materials has been upgraded, with soft-touch coverings everywhere, clean, piano black accent pieces and satin chrome trimmings – all suggesting this is a higher-end vehicle.

Full SkyActiv treatment

Under the shapely skin and stylish interior, the new Mazda3 has been given the full SkyActiv treatment.

While the 2013 model did offer a SkyActiv powertrain, there were compromises. The new engine was fitted into an existing platform – in fact one that dated back to the days when Ford shared parts and pieces with the Hiroshima-based company.

With the U.S. giant now out of the picture, Mazda has been free to explore its own ideas on efficiency and fuel economy. SkyActiv is the result and it not only applies to the powertrain, but the entire car, which is designed with this combination of technology and philosophy as the focal point.

2014 Mazda3 - engine.JPGFor example, one feature that contributes to the efficiency of SkyActiv engines is the exhaust system design. It’s a four-into-two-into-one tube header configuration, rather than the conventional cast-iron manifold.

There wasn’t room in the engine bay of the current Mazda3 to include the new header system, so Mazda had to compromise and the efficiency of the SkyActiv engine wasn’t optimum. With the new platform, however, space for the exhaust system has been included, so the 2014 iteration gets the maximum benefit.

Two SkyActiv engines are offered: a 2.0-litre four-cylinder that generates 155 horsepower (up seven from the previous version) and 150 lb-of torque; and a 2.5-litre four that cranks out 184 horsepower – an increase of 17 horsepower – and 185 lb-ft of torque.

There’s also a choice of two transmissions: a six-speed manual gearbox (available only with the 2.0-litre), or a six-speed automatic (available with either engine), both with SkyActiv features.

According to one Mazda engineer, the key word concerning the lack of manual transmission availability with the 2.4 is, "yet."

On the road

After a day of driving in the Vancouver area during Mazda’s media preview of the new 3, I preferred the larger 2.5-litre engine. It was paired with the automatic, but had the added feature of Sport mode.

By pushing a button on the console, the transmission shifting pattern was remapped. Essentially, it dropped down a cog sooner and held that gear longer, delivering a more sporty feel on twisty roads. It also increased the car’s response when more speed was required for passing and merging.

2014 Mazda3 - front 3/4 view high.JPGOf course, you could achieve similar results by using the shift lever or the paddle shifters, but this feature did the job quite well. Playing with it probably didn’t do anything good to our fuel consumption numbers, but it was a lot of fun.

The 2.0-litre engine was mated to the six-speed manual and although the shifter was silky smooth and engaged with a solid feel, this engine just didn’t seem to have the snap some buyers would expect from the "zoom-zoom brand."

On steep grades, it seemed to lack any reserve power – it certainly climbed without a fuss, but at its own pace. Putting your foot to the floor didn’t elicit a noticeable response. Similarly, on the highway it maintained good speed, but there didn’t seem to be much in reserve for passing moves.

If fuel efficiency is your prime requirement, however, the 2.0 engine/automatic transmission powertrain delivers – 6.7 litres/100 km in city driving, 4.7 on the highway.

With the manual gearbox, fuel consumption is 6.8 city, 4.8 highway. For comparison, the 2.5-litre four (with automatic) is rated at 7.2L/100 km in city driving, 5.1 on the highway.

Regardless which powertrain you choose, be assured the chassis will deliver all the fun-to-drive spirit Mazda owners love. Applying SkyActiv technologies to the 2014 chassis has resulted in a 42-kilogram reduction in overall mass, yet the body structure is 31% stiffer than the previous generation – and these changes have only made the Mazda3 even better.

Multiple choices

Pricing in Canada starts at $15,995 for the base GX sedan with manual gearbox, unchanged from the current model. Adding air conditioning ($1,600) and the automatic transmission bumps the price to $18,795.

2014 Mazda3 Sedan and Hatchback.jpgThe mid-range GS starts at $19,695, also unchanged, but the pricing for the GT trim starts at $25,855, which is actually down $140 from 2013, and tops out at $29,855 for the GT sedan with the Technology package.

The Sport hatchback starts at $16,995 and peaks at $30,855 for a GT with the Luxury (leather) and Technology packages. Hatchback prices are an even $1000 more than those of comparably equipped sedan models throughout he range.

It’s obvious Mazda’s designers and engineers have really sweated the details in developing this third-generation Mazda3. They knew the expectations of current owners, as well as what was needed to draw new compact shoppers to the Mazda brand.

After this first drive, it seems they have another winner.

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